Ben Malakoff, Contributing Writer
After winning the Atlantic 10 regular season last year, Rams baseball fell into heartbreak after losing both of their postseason games.
Some teams might want to forget and move on from a tragic moment, but for coach Shawn Stiffler and his team, the losses are motivation.
“If you’re a competitor, regardless if you win a championship the year before or came up short, those [results] should be motivation for you to get back there,” Stiffler said.
The team lost seven seniors last year, including right-handed pitcher Benjamin Dum, who is now in the Minnesota Twins organization. This season, VCU has brought in 14 newcomers, including 11 freshmen.
“Over half the team has never played a game for VCU baseball,” Stiffler said. “And that’s why this team is going to have to find its own way to win. Regardless of how last year’s team was, it has nothing to do with this year’s.”
One of the new players Stiffler is most looking forward to watching is freshman infielder Tyler Locklear. From Abingdon, Maryland, Locklear was a 2018 Under Armor All-American. At 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, Locklear hit .500 with six home runs during his senior year of high school.
Locklear will miss the first couple of weeks at the beginning of the season due to a broken bone in his hand. When he returns, he should be a good addition to the middle of the lineup, Stiffler said.
The Rams will have a lot of roles to fill as the team brings back one of three starting pitchers. Redshirt-junior right-handed pitcher Justin Sorokowski appeared in 20 games last year, all starts for VCU. He posted a 3.42 ERA in 73.2 innings of work with 73 strikeouts.
“He’s so consistent,” Stiffler said. “His improvements, many times, are incremental.”
Sorokowski always seems to trend upward steadily because of how consistent he is, Stiffler said.
Freshman right-handed pitcher Mason Delane is another newcomer who Stiffler believes will make an impact early on in the season. Delane was the No. 7 ranked right-handed pitcher out of Virginia by Prep Baseball Report. He broke Colonial Beach High School’s record when he recorded 110 strikeouts in 63 innings pitched.
“He’s got an electric arm,” Stiffler said. “I’m excited for the impact that he’s going to make.”
Junior infielder Liam Hibbits returns for his junior season fresh off being named a collegiate baseball preseason All-American. Hibbits led the team with 75 hits and batted .366 last season, en route to being named A-10 First Team.
This season Hibbits is working on improving his all-around game to help out the team more than just on offense.
“I’ve been really trying to focus on being more of an all-around player,” Hibbits said. “I really wanted to take the fall and in the spring and work on defense, and I feel like it’s paid off.”
Some other notable returners for the Rams are senior infielder Paul Witt, who was named A-10 first team and hit .336, senior infielder Brent Norwood, who was named A-10 second team and led the team with six home runs, and sophomore right-handed pitcher Evan Chenier, who was named to the A-10 all-rookie team.
While the new practice facility has only been open for a few weeks, it has made training much easier on the team. For the short time it has been made available, the team has been using it to its full capability.
“So far, it’s been incredible,” Hibbits said. “Just getting more reps, we got the new technology in there, just a convenience to just being right around the corner from our locker room. It’s been a game-changer.”
The Rams start off the season with an away series against Charlotte starting Friday. The first homestand comes quickly after that, beginning on Feb. 21 against Sacred Heart.
However, Stiffler and his squad aren’t just circling one date on their calendar. For the Rams, every game has more meaning than the last.
“Every game you win makes the next game that much more important,” Stiffler said. “And every series you win makes the next series that much more important.”
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